Editorial: Olympics vs. democracy

A hearty thank you to Mission Hill’s city councilor, Josh Zakim, for boldly proposing ballot questions regarding the Boston Olympics bid.

Yes, the questions would be nonbinding, and ballots would be cast after the bid submission deadline. But Zakim’s real message is that the Olympics and the bigwigs backing it must pay attention to the thoughts of regular citizens or face potentially devastating public-relations embarrassment.

It is a measure of how essentially, appallingly anti-democratic the Olympics is that Zakim’s call for a toothless vote is a revolutionary shot heard ’round the city. And it reflects what all Bostonians—all Americans—want from government in the most basic sense: a fair chance to hear and be heard.

“The scope and scale of this project are too large to bypass the democratic values that we as a City hold so dearly,” Zakim says.

But the terrible truth—as demonstrated by academics and thousands of news reports—is that bypassing democratic values is exactly how the modern Olympics cons cities into falling for its money-grubbing, land-grabbing TV spectacle. As we have already seen from Boston 2024, it operates by secret deals and by convincing legislatures to write special laws so it can skip standard zoning and planning reviews—and even seize property by eminent domain or sheer political pressure that is its equivalent.

There is literally no government process or review needed for the Olympics to happen. It is a private business deal, and the only meaningful public input is whatever noise the people choose to make on the streets and in the media.

Boston 2024 and the City are holding public meetings, but they are not part of any process with actual leverage and there is no sign of public input at them going anywhere other than down a black hole. The democratically elected mayor Boston has signed an agreement to support the bid, but he is not the only elected official who speaks for this city and he has no direct control over the Olympics in any case.

And we have already seen the nature of the agreement Mayor Walsh signed—a poisonous document banning City workers from criticizing the bid, and apparently requiring him to maintain silence on key aspects of the bidding; he has said the last thing he wants is a public vote. This is badly corrosive to public trust on what little discussion will take place. How can we trust, say, City transportation planners or police security experts to give us straight answers on Olympics impacts—which are always severe on neighborhoods like this one?

Imagine if the proposed 45 Worthington tower plan was being conducted with no government review process, no meetings after which public comment must be gathered and responded to, no vote by a government body. Imagine it was seizing the surrounding neighborhood by eminent domain. Imagine that the whole “process” consisted of the mayor giving it a thumbs-up after a private meeting and signing a document banning criticism of it. Now imagine that the tower is just part of a citywide—even region-wide—real estate project.

Stop imagining, because that’s what the Boston 2024 Olympics bid is.

Boston 2024 has been selling a glittery fantasy of the Olympics as an urban planning project, but with none of the actual democratic responsibility of urban planning. While Zakim’s ballot-question idea is a great assertion of the public’s rights, we hope it will begin a debate about further proposals with actual teeth.

Specifically, someone should propose an ordinance that bars the mayor from unilaterally agreeing to any Olympics deal, instead requiring a full City Council vote. It should require oversight of any such plan by normal Boston Redevelopment Authority and Department of Neighborhood Development planning officials.

Further, an ordinance should prohibit Boston from entering into any Olympics agreement if the committee making the bid does not meet two basic standards. First, it should agree to abide fully by the state’s Open Meeting Law, Public Records Law and conflict-of-interest laws. Second, its executive membership must include citizens from each Boston neighborhood, and who reasonably represent the city’s racial and economic diversity.

An organization that cannot agree to such things is engaged in something other than urban planning and should not be allowed to rebuild the entire city in its shady image.

Whatever actually happens, we will remember Councilor Zakim’s wisdom in saying that democracy comes first.

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